Taking a break from work - help me make it count!
April 27, 2010 10:38 AM   Subscribe

My wife has been feeling a lot of stress at her job for quite some time and is unsure of her overall career choice. She switched jobs about 1.5 years ago to try to reduce stress but her situation has not improved. She is concerned about finding a new job while employed (again) because the positions that she is qualified for would be similar. She is considering leaving her job and taking the time off to explore options and get herself into mental and physical shape. We've gone over our finances together and played out several scenarios that we think will work. Now we're seeking advice on things we may have missed or advice on how to make these months off really count as a time of mental reflection and physical health.

Some details: We have about 5 months of emergency funds saved up. If we make only minimal lifestyle changes, we could supplement my salary with these funds to last around 11 months. The current plan is for her to leave her current job some time in the next 1-2 months, take approximately 3 months off, and then start looking for a new job. If it takes another 3 months to find the right one, then we'll have around 2-3 months left as an emergency fund for both of us.

She'll use her time off to improve her physical and mental health. She has been wanting to lose weight for a long time but works long hours (with a long commute) and has difficulty finding the time and motivation each day after work to exercise. In addition, most evenings are spent on job listing sites without finding careers that look promising, which seems to add to her despair. She also worries that she may have depression, anxiety, or some other condition, and her low self-esteem due to her physical self-image contributes greatly to her feelings of depression.

Some questions that we have:
1) In general, can you recommend resources or personal stories on how to make this time the most valuable possible?

2) She has struggled with her career choice for a long time - she is a business major who has worked in consulting and project management, and does not get satisfaction from her work. I am in a science/technical field, so I have trouble relating to the business world. She has already read "What color is your parachute?" and "I don't know what I want, but I know it's not this" but neither of them has helped her figure out what she wants to do with her life. This is a great struggle for both of us and we are worried that even with time off for reflection, she may wind up in the same position 6 months from now. What to do?

3) She (and I, to some extent) are skeptical of therapy, which I know will not sit well with the Hive Mind. She has accepted that if she doesn't quit her current job, she might need therapy to help her through her funk. However, she thinks that if she has time off to finally institute a weight-loss/exercise plan and take care of projects that have been sitting on the To-Do list for months, she will feel much happier and less stressed out. So should she wait to seek therapy to see if she can manage on her own? This being AskMe, I expect the resounding answer will be "no", but how can she distinguish between depression and just an unfulfilling career/stressful life?

4) She is concerned about explaining a self-imposed period of unemployment to family, friends and her current and future employers. Some of her family is of the opinion that "they call it work for a reason" so she fears that they will not understand and support her in this break. Any advice on what to tell her family and future employers?

Throwaway email: maketimeoffcount@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (27 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
how can she distinguish between depression and just an unfulfilling career/stressful life?

By seeing a therapist.
posted by one_bean at 10:44 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I pretty much just made this call, not for the first time, and I can offer a couple of thoughts:

- In my various periods of unemployment, keeping a regular schedule has been key to getting things done. It's way too easy to end up sleeping weird hours and parking in front of the couch all day. If she's serious about working out, even a long morning walk would be a great start and frame her day well.

- I'm working on getting some part-time or temp jobs that have little or nothing to do with what my career is. I have some funds, but extending them is a priority, so I'm applying at the local Census office - the pay is definitely competitive. I also personally adore delivering pizza; YMMV.

- I spent a glorious year doing any old odd job that came my way, and it was great for me. I learned to budget stringently, I learned how to paint a house, I worked in a bar and a pizza parlor and for a local musician and I developed a real sense that I could take care of myself. Now, I was 22 and had the mommy safety net if I really got into trouble, but when I went back to the job I quit, I was much happier and more successful at it.

- Does she have any kind of artistic hobby? Free time like this is great for me, both because I no longer have the "no time" excuse not to work on my personal projects, and because the discipline involved in devoting time to them is really good for me.

tl; dr: Tell her this: Just stop thinking about "careers" for a while and take care of yourself in the now. Take silly, low-paying, short-term jobs if they sound fun. Jog. Paint a picture, sew a quilt, write porn, whatever. Learn to cook. Don't overthink it or she won't get anything out of it.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:51 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh, and on a practical note: before she quits, she should take the car to the shop, go to the dentist, etc - get all those "big" things out of the way so they're not hanging over y'all's heads.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:53 AM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Her idea will only work if:
1) She has a plan
2) You support her 100%

With that being said, from the get-go she should know what she wants to accomplish with her time off of work. May I suggest, you and her start a weekly goal club. Once a week, sit down over coffee and talk about what you both hope to accomplish that week. A useful exercise for your first meeting should be to show up with a "1-year plan." Where do both of you plan on being in a year?

She should definitely keep a daily journal during this period of time. Good luck to both of you!
posted by satori_movement at 10:59 AM on April 27, 2010

Treat the planned tasks (exercise/weight loss, home projects, etc) as work. Schedule them into five 8-hour workdays per week and stick to the schedule. The biggest risk is doing nothing and having it turn into a habit.
posted by rocket88 at 11:02 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Having her do informational interviews might be a good way of finding out more about companies, jobs or careers that would interest her. If she doesn't have a job title or description in mind, that's OK - she can pick two or three people who enjoy their jobs, and/or companies that she feels might be good to work for, and interview them. LinkedIn is a great way to find people for informational interviews. The purpose of an informational interview is not to find a job, or fish for contacts, it's to find out more about a particular workplace and/or job to see if this would be a good fit. Reading a job description is no substitute for actually talking to people who do a particular kind of job.

Something really important to look for when seeking work is the workplace atmosphere, not just the job and salary. Often, it's the workplace that makes all the difference whether one loves one's job, tolerates it, or hates and fears it. "Project manager" or "consultant" at a supportive workplace, with a great boss, congenial co-workers, and decent working conditions, is a whole different proposition from the same title at a workplace where your boss is a bully, coworkers are surly and self-seeking, you're worked into the ground, and the whole workplace is dysfunctional. So many unhappy workers don't hate what they do as much as who they do it with.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 11:14 AM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

If she loses a few inches she likely won't fit in her old clothes either. I would set aside some money for some new clothes. Not only will it boost her self esteem to see her awesome new body in the clothes, but it will be good when she begins interviewing again.
posted by semp at 11:17 AM on April 27, 2010

I do not think that this plan will produce the results you think it will. In fact, I think your wife will end up being worse off than she is right now, with a job she doesn't like.

If you look through my history, you will see that I recently asked a question about working out. I, too, have had a very hard time, with a day job and a creative career on the side, finding time to work out. My friends think of me as someone who is constantly working on some project. I finally decided to treat working out the same way I do my art, which is: there is no negotiation, ever. When I go to the studio I go to the studio and the dishes sit in the sink and the laundry sits undone. It is non-negotiable. I now get up at 5:45 in the morning and go to the gym 3 days a week. It EFFING SUCKS like you do not believe. I am not motivated or virtuous, I just had no choice, if I didn't want to die a fat woman who can't move. I am not a morning person. But for 40+ years I never got my ass to the gym after work so I finally found a different approach and am just doing it. Taking time off to getting into an exercise habit isn't going to help because when your wife is once again working a job that she is not going to like 100% of, she will have to then figure out how to fit her habit into a reduced time frame and she will likely find herself in exactly the same boat.

I think your wife needs to find a career coach and not a therapist, and I believe in therapy 100%. You don't say what your life doesn't like about the jobs that she is doing, but it is possible that she is working for the wrong companies or the wrong people and that is what is causing her stress and making her unhappy. If this was a situation where she knew what she wanted to do - "Oh, god, I went for my MBA, but I really like helping people and working with children, i want to be a teacher" - then taking some time off might be successful, but I really think not. If she doesn't know what she wants to do, surfing job sites are not going to help her. She needs to decide what she wants to do, and if she needs help, get her a career coach. Surf around, ask for recommendations, meet with some people and pick someone who can come up with a plan of attack she can implement *while she is currently employed*. She may also find that with this person's help that she can find a way to make her current job more enjoyable or at least tolerable.

Regarding projects on the to-do list, you don't say what they are, but what about using some of the money you are willing to relegate to her time off to hiring someone to either perform or assist her with those tasks? then they're not hanging over her head. In my house, we don't do laundry. End, period, no negotiation. It goes to the laundromat for fluff and fold. We both are willing to pay the $$ for the free time and lack of stress over doing laundry.

In this job market, there is zero, absolutely zero, guarantee that your wife will find another job when she is ready to find one, even with three months hunting. what happens to your carefully laid financial plan then?

Finally, and I mean this with all due respect: You don't say how long your wife has been in the workforce. My apologies if she has been working for years, but for some people, getting a job and having to do things you don't like to do on a regular basis is a very, very harsh & depressing thing, after being a student for a length of time and being able to do what you want (comparatively).
posted by micawber at 11:22 AM on April 27, 2010 [11 favorites]

I suggest that she quit her current job, take a fun low-stress part-time job, and do career research in the meantime.

The part-time job could be something that benefits you two in a pleasant, silly way, such as working at a cafe and getting free (healthy) food... or working at a video/music store and getting free/heavily discounted stuff.

And by "career research" I don't mean scouring job boards and actually applying, I mean setting up Informational Interviews all over the place, seeing a career counsellor and perhaps an academic advisor at her university/college?

This way, she still maintains her routine (very important for mental health, IMHO) by working, say, mornings, she still earns a bit of money for you two, and she has her afternoons free for exercise and career research.
posted by cranberrymonger at 11:37 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

In my opinion, unemployment never lessens depressions. I say this, however, as an outsider - I have not been without at least one job since I was 15 years old in 1995, including the time that I attended law school full time. But I've seen my spouse leave jobs where he was very unhappy and unfulfilled, and always it ends up (a) harder to find a new job than he anticipated it would be, so that he is (b) unemployed and more depressed for a very long time. I just don't think quitting a job and having all that time free to exercise is going to work out as planned. My two cents of course, and I am sure there will be plenty of disagreement.

I would suggest trying to transition to a new job with no employment interruption, focusing on changing either the work hours or commute time. Even a lower paying job in a less prestigious position/field, but closer to home, sounds like it would have enormous value to her. I say this as someone who works from home almost all of the time, and places extraordinary value on being able to do so. Taking less pay might be a way to 'buy' more free time, and I take the balance of work/personal time very seriously. Buying that free time may lead to exercise, a healthier lifestyle, which in my opinion facilitates more agency in life. By 'agency', I mean more ability to take control and manage career, financial and other challenges so that they work for you more than when you are a passive passenger.
posted by bunnycup at 11:41 AM on April 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have been in a similar situation, so I empathize greatly with this. I took 9 months off my job to de-stress and do some mental upkeeping. Emotionally, it was one of the most valuable periods of my life so props to your wife for going through with this. That 9 months has really changed my life. Based on my experience...here are some tips:

1) Keep a schedule and keep some structure. Your wife has stated goals...weight loss and mental upkeep. Make sure she has a SOLID plan for addressing these goals on a weekly basis. For instance...a gym schedule / workout schedule to be followed at least 4 days a week. Also, alone time for journaling (helped me tremendously) and reading self-help books. This can be as simple as going to X coffee shop 4 days a week for 2 hours to sit down and do some serious introspection on various self help topics. This is work so do yourselves a favor and treat it like work. The return on this type of work is far greater than money.

2) Therapy. Please don't skip this step. I only went to 8-10 sessions (of CBT) and that ALONE helped me. Not so much in what I "discovered" with the therapist - but mainly that going to see a therapist helped motivate the real work...which was work I did in my own time to figure myself out. By paying to see someone you are also getting objective feedback on your own process of self-discovery. Just sitting with another human and venting will do wonders. Seeing a therapist will dramatically speed the improvement of your wifes mental well being. Also since you are paying for it, you tend to take it more seriously. There are stakes involved. If you are therapy shy...make a committment to go to only a few sessions. I found that even a few sessions will really make a difference.

3) Careerwise, what helped me in that 9 months was learning to disassociate my worth or my life purpose from my job. Understand that we are conditioned in this particular society to value career prestige above almost all else...but that underneath that lies the simple desire to be loved / appreciated and to connect with other people. I learned that it is OK to not know what you want to do...and usually, people who "don't know" what they want to do may not be made for a "career" and are more suited for a J.O.B. that allows for a work life balance. It is OK to find meaning outside of work. It is OK for work to be a paycheck and nothing more. You work to live...not the other way around. The myth of the "passionate career" is prevalent in this society - and its really as outdated as the illusion of white picket fences and 2.5 kids. Time off may help your wife to make realizations such as these...or more importantly...to internalize them. The me from 4 years ago would never be comfortable saying this stuff...as I was too caught up in a stressful career track full of promotions and politics.

4) I primarily work as a contractor and as a freelancer. In the 9 months I took off, I did 3 months (scattered throughout) of freelance work. In this way, I can frame my 9 months off as 9 months of 1099 freelance work. If your wife can do even ONE small freelance job...she can simply say that in 2010 she chose to work 1099. Barring that...she only needs to say one thing to prospective employers: sabbatical.

5) As long as the time off seems structured...family may not have such a negative reaction. Also, your wife is an adult...and we don't always do what our parents might like for us. They can deal with it. This is about her, not her parents.

6) Look into the tenets of Buddhism. Take this or leave it. I am not advocating becoming a Buddhist...but some basic "Made for the Western Mind" primers on Buddhism dovetail nicely with therapy and also cultivate a mindset that can look at careers (and life in general) with more perspective. A Buddhist outlook on life has helped me (and other "career anxious" people I know) tremendously quell my anxieties. I should stress that its not Buddhism per se...but the mindset it fosters - a mindset that can be learned through other methods (the Greek Stoics, CBT, etc...)

7) Read or watch "Status Anxiety." This is a great jump-off point.

8) Exercise like crazy. This above all else. This should be a lifestyle. Look into Crossfit, the concept of muscle confusion, the concept of interval training, the concept of circuit training. Bodyweight exercises. Running. Climbing. Swimming. Your body was meant to move...not to sit.

9) Take the time off to eat healthfully. More time means more time to cook healthful meals (instead of more time to surf the internet or watch TV).

That's it off the top of my head based on my experience. I now take 2 months off every single year in order to travel and re-center. The money I spend instead of saving or investing by doing this I simply reframe as a "happiness tax." Time off is overrated in this overworked, overconsumption-oriented society. Good luck!
Book recommendations:
1. A Blank Journal
2. Feeling Good
3. Seneca: Letters From a Stoic
4. Status Anxiety
posted by jnnla at 11:54 AM on April 27, 2010 [21 favorites]

Wow...in the time it took to write my response I see that many responders advocate some type of career or job as a treatment for career / job burnout! It is precisely this sort of attitude that dominates and obfuscates. Work is indeed beneficial for mental well-being...but if you structure your time off appropriately, NOT WORKING is even better. Also note that naysayers generally find their meaning and purpose through their work...not through what they do when not at work...
posted by jnnla at 11:59 AM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

In general, can you recommend resources or personal stories on how to make this time the most valuable possible?

Stay connected to the world, stay on a schedule, get out of the house, don't use TV or WoW or MeFi to fill empty hours, get dressed every day in something nicer than sweatpants, eat food that doesn't come from a microwave or styrofoam container. Don't let the job hunt whittle itself down to a few minutes of desultory poking at job boards or the exercise program fade into a halfhearted "I'll go to the gym tomorrow". And don't try to white-knuckle it on your own if you don't have a plan for what you're trying to achieve.

The worst depression of my entire life was caused by a planned break from work to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. (And I didn't even have any money worries: I wasn't looking for a new career, I thought I was retiring.) Inactivity is strongly self-reinforcing. The absence of a schedule makes procrastination really easy. And finding yourself at the end of yet another day in which you've accomplished nothing is terribly depressing.

So should she wait to seek therapy to see if she can manage on her own?

Only if you two decide in advance what constitutes "managing on her own," and commit to changing quickly if it starts going awry. It's way too easy for a planned break from work to turn out to be far more stressful and depressing than even the worst job.

Bad signs: she doesn't know what she wants to do with herself. She's hoping job boards will magically present her with a promising career. (That's backwards. You decide what interests you first, then find a job or lifestyle that suits it.) She's never been satisfied with her work, which suggests that this isn't just situational depression due to a bad job. It doesn't sound like she has any sort of plan, just a list of tasks she thinks she'll now have time to complete -- and except for the exercise, it doesn't seem that those tasks have anything to do with her depression.

I was really skeptical of therapy too, until I finally broke down and tried it -- because I had a completely false idea of what it is. Don't think of some bearded guy with an accent asking endless questions about your childhood. (OK, those guys exist, but you don't have to keep seeing them.) Think of it as more analogous to meeting with a physical trainer at the gym: somebody who knows how the equipment works and can teach you how to make the most effective use of it. Except that instead of the equipment being exercycles and freeweights, it's strategies for coping with stress and making major life decisions.

A "career coach" may be more philosophically palatable to your wife than a "therapist," but at least as far as your wife is concerned they'd really doing pretty much the same thing.

Any advice on what to tell her family and future employers?

Family: MYOFB. Future employers: in this economy I'm not sure a 3-6 month gap between jobs is even going to be noticeable, especially if she's not planning on returning to the same line of work.
posted by ook at 12:07 PM on April 27, 2010

I would argue that it doesn't matter if it is depression or just job stress - a therapist can be helpful either way. You wife is unhappy and is going to be tackling new challenges, this is an ideal time to have some support from someone. If she hits bumps, a therapist can help figure out why or how to manage through rough times.

I agree with the others that time off, can be it's own challenge. Job stress can follow you home and personally I'm a mess without a schedule.

Also, if she takes a break, I would not wait for the job search, if something great comes along, it could take 6 months to get hired. If they really want her, they can wait. An easy job, may take the pressure off. I LOVED working 24 hours a week. It gave me time to spend with friends and lots of time to spend at the gym.
posted by Gor-ella at 12:09 PM on April 27, 2010

I heartily second cranberrymonger - I think your wife should work a part-time odd job rather than be completely unemployed for the time you are budgeting. Here is why:

1. It will keep up a structure without taking that much time out of her week- 20 hours a week is just enough to force you to be careful with all the other hours, but not enough that she'll really miss it.

2. It will bring in income that you need. You say you can do without, but I'm skeptical. What if her job hunt takes longer than anticipated? What if she finds a new career she really loves but the starting salary is significantly lower than what you are budgeting for? Unless you can make it for over a year on just your income, you wife should bring in enough to keep the emergency fund topped off.

3. It might help her depression - if she does something like retail it will be easy enough and let her interact with alot of people in a lower-stakes situation. This will boost her confidence, let her relax a little, and let her save some of her energy for non-work time.
posted by slow graffiti at 12:10 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I must concur with those who say that quitting a job with no idea what to do next is... not good. I especially agree with micawber. I think it may be all too easy for her to putter around the house/surf the net, still not finding something that she likes to do, and then in X number of months/a year you're out of money, she needs to go back to her old field anyway to bring in the money that you need, and then she may never be able to find something. I know folks who haven't been able to find a job in anything for a year, so I wince at everyone who wants to quit and "find themselves" now. I think it's entirely likely that in six months she won't know what to do STILL and you may be running out of money and have just made the situation worse.

Honestly, I wouldn't have her quit right now unless she has a gigantic meltdown in the office. You guys need a better plan for her than to chill out and exercise and uh, "figure out something" until the money's gone. At least see if there are fields/directions/interests she might like to explore, or possible schooling/retraining, before she hands in a resignation.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:28 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

jnnla: I see that many responders advocate some type of career or job as a treatment for career / job burnout! It is precisely this sort of attitude that dominates and obfuscates.

I'm not sure what "dominates and obfuscates" means, but I tend to agree with those who are recommending setting aside the big career worries for a while and finding a low-stakes "fun" job to do in the meantime. Spending some time doing random odd jobs can be a really good way to see what different types of work can be like, which can help her sort out why she's unhappy with her current work. And it can be helpful in avoiding most of the worst pitfalls of unemployment (money worries, fears of people thinking you're being lazy, getting disconnected from the world, the inactivity cycle, etc.)

(If she can find something that requires physical activity, so much the better... I spent a while doing "light industrial" temp work, which mostly turns out to be stuff like stacking boxes or carrying things from one factory machine to another, and got surprisingly physically fit doing it.)

I do very much agree with you that it's important to separate one's sense of self-worth from one's job -- but it doesn't follow that "don't have a job" is the best way to go about that.
posted by ook at 12:30 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I do not find my purpose or identity through my 9-5 job. I never have. My 9-5 funds my ability to be an artist. Some day, I hope, the art will make more money and I can leave the 9-5 for good (already tried it, didn't work out that one time, will try it again when in a better position). I have left a stressful corporate job before, and I am exceedingly disciplined. It is tough when you know what you want to do with your time, it is insane when you don't. It could be more demoralizing to the OP's spouse to not be successful at her 'time off' than it might be to continue at a stable job and work hard to find a new direction.

Here's an example: I got laid off last summer. I found a new job, and then took 4 weeks off to jumpstart one of my projects. Even when I was working on something I absolutely loved every second of, I still couldn't get my ass to the goddamn gym when i tried to do it at night. I am resigned now to the fact that if I want to work out, i have to get it out of the way in the morning, even when I am working for myself and doing art fulltime or most of the time.
posted by micawber at 12:41 PM on April 27, 2010

I'm not sure what "dominates and obfuscates" means

I should be more clear and not use buzz phrases. Based on my own experience, most people can't stand the idea of not working for an extended period of time (hence this sort of ideology being a dominant one - also in America the dominant ideology is that work = worth). I think most people would lose a sense of meaning and may get more depressed when not working. I did not find this to be the case for me..and so I found the common advice to the contrary obfuscating. Sometimes what someone needs is to just take time off work (collective meFite gasp!).

but it doesn't follow that "don't have a job" is the best way to go about that

Never said this...and I agree with you. A job is important! I think "not having a job" for a specified period of time (remember summer break in college?) can in some cases be just as important. This is what the OP asked about. I'm just the voice that is in here saying...it worked for me...it can work for you too! YMMV...
posted by jnnla at 12:47 PM on April 27, 2010

Can't she just call herself a freelancer and do a tiny bit of volunteer work on the side?
posted by anniecat at 12:49 PM on April 27, 2010

Based on my own experience, most people can't stand the idea of not working for an extended period of time (hence this sort of ideology being a dominant one - also in America the dominant ideology is that work = worth).

I could stand the idea! It's my rent payment, law school loans, car, car insurance, electric bill, health insurance, pesky requirement to eat, interest in vacation and doing fun things, responsibility to feed pets, etc. that can't stand the idea of me not working for an extended period of time.

For most adults, I think the idea of taking time off to find oneself is what "obfuscates". Specifically, I think the prevalence of this view - together with the mistaken impression given by television, movies, etc. that folks like freelance newspaper bloggers can afford big Manhattan apartments or the rental of English countryside vacation cottages for a summer to write their hearts out, etc. - creates a false stress and confusion. Instead of the idea that one must work to make money to achieve goals both practical, personal and enjoyable, one is now also 'expected' to take months off at a time to find oneself. One is 'expected' to denigrate the idea of working. The idea that it is normal, appropriate, expected to be able to succeed in life while at the same time eschewing the grind that success often entails, is far more confusing than the idea that the solution to a bad job is a better job, not no job.

Of course some people are able to make adjustments in living style, have a partner or parent pick up the slack, etc. But the suggestion that a family drain savings with no real plan other than a daily gym trip, therapy and/or Buddhist self-help books is not enlightened and not reasonably likely to yield success for most average folks. As said, I respect it for those who can, but the idea that most can is just another form of lifestyle pressure and keep-up-with-thewhoevers.
posted by bunnycup at 1:09 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes, nthing keeping a schedule and if possible, pick up some freelance work (even if freelance work is babysitting, housecleaning, whatever). I just left my job, but not until after I picked up some freelance work. Partly it was the money, and partly I just get really bored sitting around the house, and I can only exercise for 1-2 hours a day. So having some work is great- I'm still making ends meet and not plowing through my savings.

I think maybe she should make an appointment with a therapist before she quits and makes any final decision. Quitting a job actually brings up a lot of emotions (well for me at least, just because it's a big transition) so she should be prepared for a lot of unexpected emotions to arise-- good and bad ones.

Also, what about going part-time with her current company? Some people feel trapped in their workplace because they just simply assume the rules are the rules are the rules. Well, bosses are people and can really help you out if you let them know what you need. It's scary, but I've been surprised at how much I've been able to re-negotiate work place stuff just by asking.
posted by Rocket26 at 1:17 PM on April 27, 2010

What makes so called careers very stressful is the need to keep pushing to keep progressing. If she's happy to treat this as a more glamorous and better paid version of 'any old job' and focus on reliable delivery in her current role, setting boundaries in terms of what projects she looks after and manages expectations properly and is happy not to progress and not to get a payrise chances are her employer would probably quite happily tag along as long as it does not cause them a big operational problem...and she'd have less stress and simply taking the edge of the demands of her current job could take a lot of the strain away and give her a bit of breathing space.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:55 PM on April 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've done this 'break from work' before when I was really struggling to know which direction to take. It was the best thing I ever did and I recommend it in your wife's situation.

I had a stressful job that I'd just kind of fallen into without planning. I had no idea what career I wanted, just that it would not involve reacting to input outside of my control (i.e. frontline customer service). I had money saved up for a 4 week overseas holiday, and spent it instead on 6 months of rent/bills.

I spent the time discovering the internet (it was new back then!), gardening, reading, doing crafts, and thinking long and hard about my life so far and the life I wanted in the future. The thing is to make sure you don't replace your old rut with a new rut.

If therapy is actually needed for depression, it will become unavoidably clear when all the other life distractions are gone - you won't be able to mistake it for anything else. I also like the idea of a career counselor suggested above, if I could have afforded one I would have tried it.

It's hard to avoid the deep thinking that happens in this situation, and eventually the solution presents itself.

After 4 months I signed up for training in my new career, with the understanding that any career that met similar criteria would also be fine - for me, it wasn't about the specific job, it's about the working conditions. I also signed up for therapy because I actually knew what I wanted from it now. I had to wait a few months for the training course to start, and that was the hardest part. 6 months of doing nothing specific is about the outside of what an active mind can handle, I think.

Now I have a job I love, and am secure in the knowledge that if this job went away, I'd be able to find something else that would be equally satisfying (if not as well paid).

I have a friend who did a similar thing - she quit her field of study and took a job delivering pizzas. She had a great time, met great people, then went back to work in an entirely new field where she is currently very successful.

Other people thought we were weird and there was a lot of jealousy. I just told people I'd decided to get my mid-life crisis over with nice and early, and refused to move beyond joking level with people who wanted to attack or undermine me. But there was also a lot of support from some unexpected quarters - you never know who's going to 'get it'.

Some people just need to get out of their damaging routine before they can think clearly. If you can manage the bills, go for it.
posted by harriet vane at 7:48 PM on April 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Argh, after that essay-length response, I wanted to add: if you can't afford the bills, there are other options suggested above that will probably work really well too. I don't want to give the impression that my solution is the only way to go, just that it's got a good chance of succeeding.

Reducing hours to part-time, career counseling (rather than books which can't give a personalised approach), or switching to an un-serious job that still brings in cash are other good options.

And no matter what, find time for the exercise, even if it means dropping some other commitment. It's not just good for your body, it's good for your mental health and resilience too.
posted by harriet vane at 7:54 PM on April 27, 2010

Your wife's situation and the one I found myself in two years ago sound very similar. I've never really been happy in any full-time job, and have struggled with depression off and on for the past 20 years and seen my share of therapists. I've often blamed my job for making me unhappy, stressed, angry and blocking me from doing/having what it was I really wanted.

So I quit a great full-time job with the intention of taking a year off to write a novel. Sounds cliched, I know, but it was the big "dream" and I decided I was going for it.

The first six months were great -- I set up a writing schedule and stuck to it. I wrote short stories, sold a couple, turned my attention to the novel, and made some wrong turns while working on it. I weathered some significant, unexpected expenses and the death of my father.

The second six months were not-so great. The writing slowed, bogged down and finally stopped altogether. I started doubting myself, became unhappy, stressed, angry and couldn't figure out what blocking me from doing/having what I wanted, since there was no longer a full-time job to blame.

The lesson I learned -- and it was worth a year's salary -- was that it was never my job that was making me miserable. It was just me, and the way I processed and reacted to the normal stressors in any job -- full-time in an office or writing full-time. It really didn't matter. I reacted the same way to both situations.

It was a small realization, but it's had a profound effect. I'm now in a full-time job again, and yes, it makes me unhappy, stressed and angry from time to time. But it's not as bad as it used to be, because I know now that it's not the job's fault -- it's mine. It's been just enough "wisdom" to help me keep things in perspective when they threaten to spiral out of control.

Yes, I still fantasize about early retirement and literary acclaim and telling the man to take his job and shove it. But not with the same ache of an unfulfilled dream that it used to have. And that has made all the difference.

YMMV -- but I wish you and your wife well as you both work to find perfect personal and professional happiness. And if by chance you do figure it out, please let me know!
posted by Work to Live at 10:55 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

This break sounds so much like work that I don't think it is worth stopping working to take it! Planning is all very well, but sheesh, must everyone maximize and qualify and plan and agonize over a break? I hope it isn't you pushing or strongly encouraging your wife to do this and pushing her into doing something at least minimally constructive until she can get back on the work treadmill.

What I would do if I was your wife:
- One month holiday - spent sleeping, eating badly, watching crappy TV or reading or whatever she wants, no poking at her to be useful. No poking at her to maintain an immaculate house, let it go a bit and do the things that bother you yourself. Let her really relax! Let her decide if and when she wants to exercise.
- Next month doing her share of the housework and applying to jobs that sound interesting, researching what an average day is like at that job and going to any interviews to see if they sound cool (emphasis on no pressure to grab a job, more to feel them out).
- Next month apply to more jobs and trying narrow things down and start taking interviews more seriously.
- Next month sign up at some temp agencies and pick an employment agency consultant to work with if no luck so far and get a temporary job, but still keep interviewing at jobs you think might be cool.

This way she sort of eases into things and doesn't get close to your financial deadlines, as well as having a nice break.

I wouldn't worry about the gap in her resume, she can always say she was traveling, caring for a sick relative, trying to start her own business, being a homemaker, or just plain unemployed (perfectly acceptable these days). It is also perfectly fine to say that she was switching fields, this is understood to be difficult and take a long time.

Other things I think could possibly help your wife:
- Hiring a cheap cleaner once a week
- A vacation
- One night per week that is her own to do anything or nothing on
- A nice relaxing pet like a cat
- A nice new husband who thinks she is wonderful and great just like she is (just kidding)
posted by meepmeow at 12:30 PM on April 28, 2010

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